New claims stir memories and controversy from Michigan PBB disaster
Now partially blind and suffering from skin ailments, Ronnie Carter claims that he once helped to bury contaminated cattle feed near Battle Creek, at the height of a statewide environmental disaster in the 1970s.
“I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t want to take this to my grave,” Carter said while sitting outside his Battle Creek home.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality acknowledges that Carter brought his concerns to the department’s attention recently.
“At this time MDEQ has no evidence of PBB contaminated feed being buried at the Farm Bureau site,” wrote Melody Kindraka, a department spokeswoman. “Should the status of the site change, we will proceed in accordance with Michigan’s Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act,” Kindraka added in a follow-up email.
Carter’s claims revolve around contaminated animal feed from a major industrial accident that poisoned cattle and farm animals throughout the state.
Alpha Clark, a veterinarian in McBain who is now 85 years old, became one of the first individuals to realize that something was very wrong with hundreds of cattle throughout Michigan in the early 70s.
“At first they thought I was screwy,” Clark said, referring to state officials with whom he said he took concerns about the condition of the cattle.
Many cows in Michigan developed sores and disfigured hooves, and milk production dropped significantly, ultimately causing financial ruin for some farmers, and health concerns for those who purchased meat, milk and other products in Michigan.
After months of debating with state officials, Clark took samples from the cattle to other states, where it was later determined that they had been contaminated with polybrominated biphynyl (PBB), a chemical commonly used as a flame retardant in many household products.
Shortly after discovering the contamination, Clark regularly watched farmers being forced to shoot their cattle.
He would make regular trips to what became the mass-grave site in Kalkaska County to oversee their burial, adding that state officials wanted to pick an area they thought would be safe enough to bury so many contaminated animals.
Today, however, it’s not clear if all the animals were properly destroyed; nor is it clear what happened to all of the contaminated feed.
According to Ronnie Carter, who approached the I-Team several months ago, he and his father were hired by the Michigan Farm Bureau to bury PBB contaminated feed near Battle Creek, a now-empty property with vacant buildings.
“We dumped three box car loads,” he said. “They said, ‘you’re to dig a hole and bury this feed,’ so that’s what I did, I was only 14 or 15 at the time,” he added.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Newschannel 3’s I-Team was able to obtain hundreds of pages about the former Farm Bureau Services site, including the Baseline Environmental Assessment.
Some of the earliest documents from the mid-70s indicate some concern from Farm Bureau Services about PBB residue at the site, but do not reference the burial of contaminated feed.
A handwritten letter from the mid-70s also mentions PBB. “Swamp south of plant … sampled at inlet got PBB in sediment,” it reads.
The letter also references a Pennfield Township landfill, one of several sites, according to University of Michigan researchers, where PBB contaminated feed was buried.
Although the Michigan DEQ denies having any proof that feed was buried at the property, a spokesperson did indicate that testing of soil and groundwater near the Pennfield Township landfill showed no PBB contamination as a result of contaminated feed being buried at that location.
Carter said he still disagrees with the DEQ about his claims involving the Farm Bureau site. He said a DEQ official recently visited the site with him.
“I want to see it cleaned up," Carter said. "I want to see them come in here and do the job right.”
During the 1980s, the DEQ did perform remediation on the site, involving mostly mercury, nickel and copper contamination, but those cleanups did not focus on PBBs.
The I-Team did, however, discover a 2006 DEQ Environmental Site Assessment mentioning PBBs.
“… A concentration of PBBs were discovered through laboratory testing of seditment samples collected from the inlet area of a swamp located near the Farm Bureau Services Battle Creek Feed Plant,” reads the assessment.
That assessment concludes that the PBBs were likely the result of several washings of the feed plant, and that the sediments at a particular area were then disposed at the Pennfield landfill.
“No records of confirmation soil samples documenting the extent of contamination were found,” the report reads.
The property owner contacted Newschannel 3, and emphasized that the property had been cleared by the DEQ, while also emphasizing tens of thousands of dollars had been invested in cleaning up the property from other contaminents.